“Swimming is the only thing that makes me feel better. It’s the only time I’m not in pain.” —Susan Helmrich
After three major surgeries for cancer—losing a lung, part of her digestive tract, and her entire reproductive system along the way—Susan Helmrich found herself in severe chronic pain due to compression or damage to her spinal nerves.
Until her third, rather gruesome operation, she had never experienced sciatica. Now it’s a relentless daily companion. “It’s shooting pain, burning, it goes down to my foot,” she said to a journalist. “It’s unbearable.”
Amazingly, she told this story just moments before competing in the U.S. Masters Swimming Nationals, where she finished second in the 1,650-yard freestyle, the longest race at the event.
How does she manage to live with such pain?
"Your brain isn't sitting in a jar somewhere, in splendid isolation. It's connected to the rest of your body by stuff like your spinal cord, billions of nerve fibers and synapses, your circulatory system, of course, and weird things like glial cells, as wells as jillions of chemicals, minerals and hormones--all spread throughout the organism like so many tourists in foreign countries snapping selfies and posting them to the biological internet."
I could tell exactly when Katherine mentally and emotionally checked out of the famed six-week Stanford University course on chronic pain self-management. I was sitting right next to her. It was when the instructor, who was simply reading from her script, made the statement: “Pain is 100% in the brain.” To be fair, the instructor read a bunch of other stuff too, presumably trying to explain the meaning of that little bombshell. But, well, the damage was done. Katherine was already gone.
“Breathing in, I calm myself. Breathing out, I smile.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
Last night, like so many other nights, I lost several hours of sleep to pain. A hot coal embedded in my left hip, my ass, to be more precise. Bolts of lightning shooting all the way down to the toes of my left foot. Electric storms flickering across the darkened landscape of my body. Alas, I’m used to it by now. I know what to do.
“One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice.” —Mary Oliver
If you live with chronic pain, as I do, eventually you’ll hear almost every imaginable remedy for what ails you. As soon as some wise and kindly soul in the vicinity discovers you’re in pain, whether you ask for it or not, whether you want it or not, he or she will offer some tidbit of well-intentioned advice. Nails on a chalkboard could not be more annoying. Normally I grit my teeth, smile, and scope out the nearest exit.